Aging bus fleet limps along
The MTA bus fleet isn't aging gracefully.
Because demand is forcing more additional buses onto the street, more than one out of four in operation are at least 12 years old, the age when the vehicles are supposed to be retired.
Mechanics say they have increasingly found themselves tearing out engines and bus underbellies, while some drivers just blatantly refuse to get behind the wheel of the older models.
Expensive overhauls bring the old clunkers back to life, but it hasn't transformed ugly ducklings into swans - meaning more breakdowns and delays for riders.
Everyday the rails are cracking, the bulkheads are cracking, said Bob Keith, a bus mechanic for 24 years who is running to become a union leader. We are welding them all and putting them back into service. But that's a temporary fix.
One driver, who asked not to be named, said many of the buses are 10 to 15 years old.
New York City roads wreak havoc on a bus's chassis as it ages. Mechanics say they are gutting more of them, and would prefer customers had newer vehicles to ride in.
When a chassis breaks, anything could be imaginable, said Keith. It's a scary thought.Bus failures in January were up 20 percent compared to 2007, according to MTA figures.
"The buses just keep getting worse and worse, slower and slower," said Joseph London, of Manhattan. "It's always crowded, even at the off-peak times when I ride."
The breakdowns aren't an everyday occurrence, but when one bus fails, its passengers have to wait for a replacement, an inconvenience that backs up the entire route.
The bus just doesn't show up, it's late or it's packed, said William Henderson, executive director of the Permanent Citizens Advisory Committee to the MTA.
Sandra Darbasie, of Manhattan, said she recently suffered through a scary breakdown on a city bus.
We smelled something burning in the back, Darbasie said. (The driver) stopped the bus and we had to wait a while for a replacement.
Joseph Smith, president of MTA bus operations, recently told the agencys board that the older buses have become a costly thorn in the its side.
We have some serious structural problems with these buses, Smith told the board.
Ironically, a growth of ridership has fueled the need to resurrect and maintain older buses, Smith said. In 2006, the MTA absorbed seven private routes operating in the boroughs. Those lines experienced a 10 percent increase in ridership between 2007 and 2008.
The MTA bought hundreds of new hybrid buses when it took over the private lines, but some of the old models remained in service.
By year's end, the MTA will receive 850 new hybrid buses that will allow them to replace many - but not all - of the vintage models.
It's an old fleet as far as buses go, Henderson said.
Smith said the buses in operations are safe and do not pose a danger to passengers.
When (a bus) is too old, we stop it and sell it, he said.
Andrew Breiner contributed to this report.
Buses in the Big Apple
1,700: buses in the fleet are 12 years or older.
6,200: total buses in the fleet
3,950: average number of miles between bus breakdowns in January, up 20 percent from 2007
968 million: total rides in 2008
2.4 million: average weekday ridership in January
390: routes in the city